Stealth, Ninja Diphtheria

Whilst in Wisconsin last week, I visited the Lake Mills Public Library, seeking information on Addie Hoyt Fargo. I read about 15 months of the Lake Mills Leader from November 1900 to February 1902 (when Enoch married Maddie). The Lake Mills Leader was a weekly, and I found this obituary published on June 20, 1901. The other Addie obit that I published earlier came from The Jefferson County UnionRead it here.

I suspect both of these obits were penned by Oatway. He made a couple boo boos on this one.


Actually, Addie was born in January 1872. Sheesh.

page two

At the bottom, it does say Addie had a funeral, but that would have been logistically problematic. Dead at two, buried by 10, how did they notify people? Typical Victorian funerals were grandiose affairs; the wealthier the better! More on that below.

This obit raises a lot of questions. First off, given that Oatway is the star of this obit, I think he wrote it in the wee hours. And the first obit (published here) said she got sick Tuesday late morning and died at 2:00 in the morning on Wednesday. Okay, so the midnight hour passed once. He defines that as two days. Huh.

And a second tidbit: Here he says there was a funeral. That’s not mentioned in the prior obit. But this was pre-telephone and pre-radio. How did they arrange a funeral? How did they notify mourners?  Did Enoch run door to door and say, “Addie’s dead – please come to our funeral? It’s being held in 45 minutes? And hurry!!”

Again – more questions than answers.

Now, about that obituary. Those of us spending time in the 21st Century have learned about the Heimlech Maneuver, and what’s the first thing we learned? If the person can talk, they are getting some air, and they’re not truly choking.

And what if they have the ability to actually “exclaim!”?


Okay, so maybe her airway was restricted and she was in distress. That’s possible, but if those are the facts, she is NOT going to fall back on the bed and die.

That’s the first point.

Here’s the second.

Dr. Oatway was the county health officer and one of his duties was to file a report with the Wisconsin State Board of Health and report on the incidence of communicable disease in Lake Mills. This was a paid position (and he earned extra for epidemics), and it was a very important job.

In 1876, Wisconsin created a “State Board of Health” that compiled facts and stats on communicable diseases. “Health Officers” were appointed (and paid) by the state, and it was their job to help track, record and monitor the prevalence and severity of the dreaded scourges of the day such as diphtheria, small pox, consumption, cholera and typhoid.

Each year, these health officers filed a report with the state, wherein they answered several specific questions. Two of the most interesting questions they were asked were, “Are the laws regarding birth certificates and burial permits enforced in your community?” and “What’s the incidence of communicable disease in your community?”

In the report that Oatway filed with the state of Wisconsin for the period of time that included Addie’s death, Oatway stated, “the law requiring the report of dangerous contagious diseases is observed with regard to small pox, diphtheria and scarlet fever only.”

Reporting as the health officer, he mentions the deaths from a number of diseases but he says nothing about any cases of diphtheria in Lake Mills, or deaths from diphtheria in Lake Mills.

Okay, this is good news. There were no cases of diphtheria, and no one died from diphtheria in Lake Mills in 1901.

Okay, so maybe he forgot ALL about treating Lake Mills’ most famous socialite, married to Lake Mills’ most wealthy man, living in Lake Mills’ most grandiose castle. Okay. Maybe.

But this wasn’t just diphtheria! This was stealth, Ninja, Knock-off-your-socks (and Put-on-your-boots?), Diphtheria!

It was an especially virulent bout of diphtheria! In Oatway’s own words, “[the diphtheria] had advanced with unusual rapidity…it was the most stubborn, and rapidly developing case he has ever met with, and the result seems to justify the belief that no human power or skill could have furnished relief…”

And Oatway’s narrative also states that he “resorted to the most modern means in use for battling with the disease, and made every effort to check the disease…”

In 1894, a German doctor discovered an anti-diphtheria serum that was found to have excellent results. In 1895, it was manufactured (and available) in the United States. About that time, the mortality rate from this dread disease started to plummet. In Wisconsin’s small towns, the 1901 death rate for patients with diphtheria was 9.1%, and that includes children (who had a much higher death rate from the disease).

In one of these 1901 health reports, another doctor writes a short essay explaining that he’d lost a young child to diphtheria, and it never would have happened, had it not been for the family’s neglect to notify the doctor earlier. The doctor’s angst shone through his words, that even a child shouldn’t die in such a time as this, with the availability of modern serums.

Even if there was no serum in Lake Mills, couldn’t someone be sent (by train) to Milwaukee to fetch a vial for Mrs. Fargo?

But I don’t think there was any diphtheria that day (or that year) in Lake Mills. I think Dr. Oatway told the truth on the 1901 report to the State Board of Health. Oatway knew that the burial permit was a state document, checked by the state, and used specifically to track the incidence of communicable diseases, and that’s why he was willing to falsify the death certificate (making up a number for the burial permit), but not the burial permit. The burial permit was being watched by the state, and it might even trigger an investigation from the state. (Especially given that no diphtheria had been present in Lake Mills for some time.)

The death certificate could be safely forged. The burial permit could not. That’s why there was no burial permit for Addie.

And this obituary makes it much more difficult to believe that Oatway could have forgotten all about Addie’s death when he filed that report with the State Board of Health for 1901. After all, it was the most (fill in the blank with adjectives) Diphtheria he had ever seen! How does one forget such a thing?

They don’t.

As to Addie picking that up in Portage? The Lake Mills Leader said she traveled there around June 6th. The communicability period for diphtheria germs is less than six days. There’s that Ninja Stealth Diphtheria again.

And the best part? The Health Officer for Portage reported that there were no cases (and no deaths) of diphtheria in 1901.

It’s that stealth component.

So in conclusion, Addie got diphtheria and died. But there were no cases of diphtheria in Lake Mills in 1901. But she got it from her trip to Portage. But there were no cases of diphtheria in Portage, either.

As my daughter says, “Maybe Addie had that stealth, Ninja, reach-up-out-from-under-the-canoe-and-grab-you, throw-your-boots-on-your-feet-while-you-lay-sick-in-bed, jump-up-and-scream-while-choking, and then flop backwards on the bed and die” Diphtheria.

Best explanation I’ve heard yet.

To read about Addie’s exhumation, click here.

Page one of Dr. Bentleys report from Portage, WI. This covered all of 1901.

From the State Board of Health Report, this is the first page one of Dr. Bentley's report from Portage, WI. This covered all of 1901. Page two continues below.


Dr. Bentley's report on Portage, second page (see top).



This snippet appeared in the 1902 "Report of the State Board of Health" for Wisconsin and covered the the time period during which Addie Hoyt allegedly died of diphtheria. How did Oatway forget about Addie's horrible diphtheric death?



This statement, taken from the above text and penned by Oatway, says that if there was a case of diphtheria in his town (Lake Mills), it *would* be reported.



Unless you're paid off by Enoch Fargo to falsify a death certificate...


Addies death certificate, allegedly falsified by Dr. Oatway.

Under the date (June 1901), Addie's death certificate reads, "Burial Permit #32." State law demanded accuracy in reporting of birth certificates and burial permits. He apparently felt compelled to tell the truth when he submitted his written report to the state of Wisconsin.


Addies little

Was this what the well-dressed, sick-in-bed diphtheria patient wore in 1901? Based on the remnants found in Addie's grave, these were probably similar to the shoes that Addie was wearing (and was buried with) when she died in June 1901.


Addie was exhumed on November 3, 2011. She will not be returning to Lake Mills.

Addie was exhumed on November 3, 2011. She will not be returning to Lake Mills. After the autopsy is complete, Addie's remains will be coming home with me.


Exhumation under way.

Exhumation under way.


Addies grave was empty by 12:00 noon.

Addie's grave was empty by 12:00 noon.


The view on Friday morning.

The view on Friday morning. I would have preferred to have had that foot stone removed and discarded, but the city wanted it to remain.

Addie in 1886 (about 14 years old).

Addie in 1886 (about 14 years old).

Addie - close-up

Addie - close-up

Addie and her sister, Anna Hoyt (my great-grandmother).

Addie and her sister, Anna Hoyt (my great-grandmother).

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  1. Bev Pinkerman

    Did you happen to read any other obits that were in the paper, did they all go into much detail? Too much explanation, almost as if he could sense the obvious questions and was trying to come up with a cover story for them as he went.

  2. Debbie

    Did Addie’s brother actually live in Lake Mills at the time of her death? What exactly were the funeral customs of the period?

  3. Becca

    Why on earth would the city demand that the foot stone remain if Addie is gone? Not meaning to be insensitive – just curious.

  4. Sears Homes

    Becca, I wish everyone who owns a phone, telegraph, or writing instrument would contact the city and ask that very question. Addie is gone. Why must her foot stone remain?

  5. Holly

    Hmmm…this has me thinking that maybe it wasn’t diphtheria or a gunshot which killed her, but whatever the “most modern means” of combating it were, making the killer Dr Oatway. Who didn’t make the correct diagnosis earlier in the day? Dr Oatway. Who tried the newest techniques and they failed? Dr Oatway. Who arranged for the invisible burial permit? Dr Oatway. Who’s the source for Addie’s final hours? Dr Oatway. Who’s the source for Enoch killing Addie? Dr Oatway.

    It seems Dr Oatway might have a pretty good reason to cover up if a treatment he prescribed went horribly wrong. Killing the wife of the town’s richest man can have a negative impact on your future business! She might not even have had diphtheria but he accidentally gave her something she was allergic to, or administered an overdose. Oatway panicked and spread the tale of diphtheria and the dramatic deathbed scene. Maybe Enoch and Addie’s marriage wasn’t happy anyway and he was fooling around with Maddie, so Addie’s death, though unfortunate, was convenient in his eyes. As for Dr Oatway’s deathbed confession, is there any source for it other than a book? Was it reported in local papers at the time or was there any other contemporary source?

    Probably a red herring anyway, but an interesting thought to look at another possible suspect.

  6. Sears Homes

    Holly, that’s a thought, but I think Oatway was called in for clean-up and cover-up. I don’t think he had anything to do with the committing of this alleged crime. And I don’t think Addie was ill. She was buried with her shoes on! Why would a sick woman be wearing dress shoes!

  7. Sharman Arslanian

    People are ‘dressed’ for burial. It’s probably not uncommon that they are wearing shoes. But I really don’t know.

    Rose’s Reply: Under normal circumstances, I’d agree. But these were not normal circumstances. Addie was allegedly stricken with the most virulent form of Diphtheria that Dr. Oatway had ever seen. She died at 2:00 am, and was IN the ground (in a shallow grave) by 10:00 am, due to fears of contagion.

    The Victorians were big on funeral rituals and to forego a viewing and a proper funeral was pretty well unheard of. In fact, while reading the other obituaries in the Lake Mills Leader, I could not find ONE other case of someone with a contagious disease being buried so hurriedly.

    So Addie’s diphtheria was so extreme that they got her in the ground before eight hours had passed. There’d be no viewing. There’d be no mourners. There’d be no one to sit with her in a funeral home. Why would they stop and PUT ON HER SHOES with all those laces? They would not.

    The shoes are a damning bit of evidence.

  8. Joeylynn

    Wow. I’m speechless.

  9. Debbie

    So Addie died at 2 am, after springing from her bed to announce that she was choking. (The way the obit is written, it sounds like a low-budget B movie.) The funeral was at 10 am. I wonder when the grave was dug and how long it took?

    Considering it was only 34 inches deep, I doubt that professional grave diggers did the job. And since there was no burial permit, as already proven, my guess is that someone Enoch knew, like a gardener or some such person who worked for him, did the digging.

    Since Addie was found with shoes, I also wonder if she was fully dressed when she died — of a dreaded disease — in the middle of the night. Why take the time to redress her, when there was no viewing and time was of the essence? To avoid contaminating anyone or anything with this very communicable disease, since they buried her so quickly, how long was it between death and burial – in a 34 inch deep grave.

    Wouldn’t someone who had died of diphtheria be buried at least 6 ft deep? Surely professional grave diggers would have done just that. But then Oatway wrote in his report to the State of Wisconsin that there were NO cases of diphtheria in Lake Mills in 1901. Yet, in the above obit, it says Addie had the worst case of diphtheria he had ever seen! Surely, he didn’t forget such a horrible case of this disease. It would be one for the books!

    It would be of great interest to other doctors who treated those with this disease, since in this instance, modern medicine (of that time) did not work on this particular patient. I wonder if any doctors contacted Oatway to confer with him on other cases of diphtheria? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.

    I don’t think Addie died of diphtheria. The tale that Dr. Oatway had woven is unraveling rapidly.